House Republican freshmen resist possible budget compromise as leaders negotiate

No deal.

Yet.

One day after Vice President Biden outlined a potential agreement to stave off a government shutdown, Republicans on Thursday said it won’t be that easy.

Some seemed to object to the idea of a compromise, of any sort. Others took issue with the specific compromise Biden floated on Wednesday. It would cut $33 billion from the federal budget, the largest one-time reduction in U.S. history.

And some said that was nowhere near enough.

“You know, that is kind of classic Washington right there, right? ‘We want 60.’ ‘We want zero.’ ‘So let’s land at 30 and everybody’s happy,’ ” said Rep. Bill Huizenga(Mich.). He, like several of the 86 other GOP freshmen, opposes the compromise Biden outlined.

A budget deal could still come together. It could even happen soon: The two parties continued to negotiate in private Thursday.

But it was clear that this budget impasse will be solved — if it is solved — not because of the familiar Capitol Hill favor-trading but because each party fears being blamed for a shutdown.

And, with the deadline to avert a shutdown still a week away, it seems that nobody is afraid enough yet.

The government has now operated without a budget for 183 days. Republicans have called for deep cuts, passing a measure that would reduce this year’s spending by $61 billion. Senate Democrats have said they won’t accept that.

On Wednesday, Biden had signaled that a deal might be possible before April 8, when the current stopgap measure will expire, telling reporters, “We’re all working off the same number now.”

He meant that Republicans and Democrats had agreed to cut about $33 billion — including $10 billion that was already part of two recent short-term measures. But they still had to haggle: The Republican bill would take funding from conservative targets such as Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency and National Public Radio.

On Thursday, the Republican response could be summed up in two words: What deal?

“You’ve heard a lot of talk over the last 24 hours,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio). “There is no agreement on numbers. Nothing will be agreed to until everything is agreed to.”

Outside the Capitol, several Republicans told a small tea party rally that they were ready for confrontation, not compromise.

“By picking a fight and winning this one small step toward fiscal discipline, the American people will see . . . that we can fight and we can win,” said Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.).

Late Thursday afternoon, Boehner held his regular meeting with the 87 freshmen in the Capitol basement. Rep. Patrick Meehan (Pa.), whose suburban Philadelphia district is one of the most moderate held by a GOP freshman, said there was “a sense of shared conviction” that the Democratic-held Senate is the problem.

However, lawmakers emerged from the closed-door huddle with no clarity on where they stood on Biden’s suggested deal. A few were outright opposed, but most said they were happy to hear Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) tell them that they were fighting for deeper cuts.

The key is how deep Republican rejectionism runs. It might actually help Boehner now, by giving him leverage for a better deal. But if he ever does strike a bargain with Democrats, it could turn on him.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, said a deal perceived as too watered-down could cause conservatives to vote against it.

“There’s going to be a lot of salesmanship that’s going to have to take place” if the compromise is $33 billion in cuts, Kingston said. Already, one of the tea party speakers was yelling at GOP leaders to “take off your lace panties [and] stop being noodle-backs.”

In past decades, Congress has repeatedly missed its budget deadlines, risking a shutdown. But these impasses were often solved with small compromises.

“That’s the oil that greases the skids. You go to a guy on the other side, and he says . . . ‘If you ask me to vote for A, [I need] $1.5 million to complete the wing on [a] hospital,’ ” said Steve Bell, a longtime staffer for former Senate budget chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who now works for the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “You did it member by member.”

But this time, budgets are being cut so deeply that there is little money left for small projects. So this fight seems less like a negotiation and more like a dare. Each side is worried about the risks of a shutdown — but betting that the other side is more worried.

“The people who seem to be afraid of a government shutdown . . . are worried about getting elected in two more years,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), who said the $33 billion figure was smaller than what he pledged. “I’m worried about having to go home and tell the folks that I grew up with, and intend to spend the rest of my life with, that I’m a liar.”

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David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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